Can Life Imitate Art?

This morning, various posts and comments led me to contemplate the difference between the ideals we aspire to and the reality of living them.

I’m reminded of various snippets from the Ken Burns documentary on Thomas Jefferson:

“Both Jefferson and Adams were committed to a republic, but they had very different styles.  Jefferson was bland and careful and aphoristic and high-flown.  His rhetoric always soared towards aspirations and to human dignity.”

Thomas Jefferson quote regarding the writing of the Declaration of Independence– “Not to find out new principals or new arguments never before thought of – Not merely to say things which had never been said before,  but to place before mankind a common sense of the subject in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take”

But most especially this morning brought to mind the following:

‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’

Those are the closest things to magic words of American history.  Those are the words that all Americans, at some very, very important level, believe in.

They are essential words of the American creed.  And part of Jefferson’s genius was to articulate at a sufficiently abstract level these principals, these truths, that we all want to believe in.

The level is sufficiently abstract so that we don’t have to notice that these truths are at some level unobtainable and at another level, mutually exclusive – Perfect freedom doesn’t lead to perfect equality – It usually leads to inequality.  But Jefferson’s genius is to assert them at a level of abstraction where they have a certain rhapsodic, inspirational quality and we all agree not to notice –

Not to notice that they are unobtainable and not to notice they are mutually exclusive or contradictory.

They are, in some sense, nice representations of Jefferson’s personality, wishing to be above it all – and concealing the contradictions.”


I admit, I’m a sucker for the idealistic and high-flown perfection of great works and movie dialogue…

I wish, oh don’t I wish, that Life could Imitate Art…

And so, I share with you one of my favorites that talks of ideals and what it takes to live up to them:

“America is advanced citizenship. You gotta want it bad, ’cause it’s gonna put up a fight. It’s gonna say “You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.

You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country can’t just be a flag; the symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms. Then, you can stand up and sing about the “land of the free”.” – Andrew Shepherd, The American President


Is it possible to aspire to ideals and live them without contradicting yourself?

I hope so, cuz I’m still aspiring…



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